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“Set in a magical world filled with incredible creatures from folklore, this fast-paced fantasy will keep readers turning the pages . . . A captivating series opener.” —Booklist, starred review
Magic is fading from the Wild Wood. To renew it, goblins must perform an ancient ritual involving the rarest of their kind—a newborn changeling. But when the night arrives to trade a human baby for a goblin one, something goes terribly wrong. After laying the changeling in a human infant’s crib, the goblin Kull is briefly distracted. By the time he turns back, the changeling has already perfectly mimicked the human child. Too perfectly: Kull cannot tell them apart, so he leaves both babies behind.
Tinn and Cole are raised as human twins, neither knowing what secrets may be buried deep inside one of them. When they are thirteen years old, a mysterious message arrives, calling the brothers to be heroes and protectors of magic. The boys must leave their sleepy town and risk their lives in the Wild Wood, journeying through the Deep Dark to reach the goblin horde and uncover who they truly are.
In this first book in a new fantasy-adventure series, the New York Times bestselling author of Jackaby takes readers on a journey of monsters, magic, and discovery.
The town of Endsborough was a quaint community teetering on the edge of what could be only generously termed civilization. A dense forest known by the locals as the Wild Wood curled around the town the way a Great Dane might curl around a terrier puppy. A single, winding road was all that connected the people of Endsborough to the rest of the world. Two days' ride on a sturdy horse would take travelers past Cobb's Outpost and to the crowded city of Glanville, where modernity was all the rage. Gas lamps were on their way out in Glanville, and fancy electric streetlights were on their way in. Quiet Endsborough, meanwhile, had not yet gotten around to gas. Its citizens had adopted the practical habit of going to sleep when the sun went down—and when the sun rose, they rose with it. There was a straightforward simplicity to Endsborough.
The town boasted a lumber mill and a coal mine. It had modest apple orchards and more cows than it really needed, if it was being honest. In its middle sat a brick building that served as the schoolhouse on weekdays, the church on Sundays, and the meeting hall on Saturdays. It was a no-nonsense sort of town that heard about notions like technology and progress and decided that they sounded exhausting.
Everybody knew the wood was home to monsters: towering giants and trolls and goblins who kidnapped sweet, dimpled babies in the dead of night, stealing them away into the forest forever. Daring adventures awaited any hero brave enough to cross that tree line and march into the unknown. Which was why the people of Endsborough did not. Endsborough was simply not the sort of town that went looking for trouble. Trouble, however, found its own way to Endsborough.
Trouble crept silently out of the Wild Wood one warm summer night, holding its breath as it tiptoed toward a cottage on the edge of town. Trouble listened outside the back window, waiting patiently until everyone inside was asleep. And then, when it was quite certain it would not be spotted, trouble made its move.
Kull tiptoed along the back wall, holding his precious bundle close to his chest as he hurried from shadow to shadow. He meant well—mostly—at least by goblin standards. His pointed ears perked up at every sound, and his jagged teeth ground nervously against one another.
It wasn't treason, what he was doing. It was tradition. And it was necessary. True, the goblin chief had commanded that the human world was now strictly off-limits, and yes, there had been talk of terrible shame and torture, and something about entrails, for any member of the goblin horde who trespassed into the world of men—but the quiet, dark room into which Kull crept that night did not belong to a man, did it? A man could hardly fit in the wee cradle or appreciate the colorful rattle and the fluffy stuffed lamb, could he?
Kull was going to steal that baby. Stealing babies was what goblins did. Or it was what they ought to do. It was certainly what they used to do.
Kull grunted as he pulled himself up to the open window with one hand, the bundle still cradled tight in the other. Perhaps note stealing babies was what had gotten the horde into its current sad state of affairs. Chief Nudd was too soft. He was too modern-minded. He was too weak. Yes, he threatened to boil their noses and braid their toes from time to time, but he so rarely followed through on those threats anymore. Too much time spent colluding with humans, that was the problem. Not enough time spent stealing babies.
Kull slipped down from the window to the floorboards as quietly as he could. The air in the room smelled of soap and talcum powder.
The chief's empathetic quirks had been tolerable while the horde was thriving, but things were different now. Kull felt it. The chief felt it. Every goblin in the horde felt it. Slowly but steadily, magic was leaving the Wild Wood. Slowly but steadily, the horde was dying. It was one thing to sit idly by when there was nothing to be done about it, but it was something else entirely to sit idly by when the solution was right there in their hands.
The cloth bundle shifted against Kull's grip, and he felt tiny, soft fingers wrap around his thumb. He glanced down at the bundle in his arms. His throat felt dry. The changeling was the answer.
A changeling was more than just a goblin who could transform to look like a human. A changeling was the living embodiment of goblin magic. It was a symbol of power and potential. It was hope. It was no coincidence that the changeling had been born just when things appeared most dire. Chief Nudd had failed them, but out of his failure, the one shining light was this baby.
The horde had not produced a changeling—a real changeling, not just an ordinary goblin in a wig and a dress—since the era of the Manky Basilisk. Nudd's father had still been chief back then. The old chief would never have questioned what to do when a changeling was born into the horde. He had been a goblin's goblin, steeped in the Old Ways. Now that he was gone, somebody had to see that the Old Ways did not go forgotten.
Admittedly, if Kull was being truthful, he only half remembered the Old Ways himself. Many of them he had never learned in the first place, but he would bleed for the bits he did remember—well, someone would bleed, anyway—and Chief Nudd and all the rest of them would thank him when it was done. Until then, he was on his own. If Kull hoped to see the ancient traditions revived, he would have to sort out the details by himself, and he would have to sort them out quickly.
The squishy pink baby in the crib ahead of him was already beginning to stir. Kull hoped to whisk the little human back into the Wild Wood before it started crying, leaving the changeling in its stead. Then there would be the customary exchange with the fair folk—Kull would have to dig out the ancient contracts to find the details on that. He couldn't remember exactly how it all worked—but soon enough the human baby would be on the other side of the veil and magic would return to this one. How long should the changeling remain with the humans? It had a three in it, Kull thought. Or maybe a seven? It was important, he remembered that much. Pesky details about numbers and ceremonies and proper procedures could wait until after he had stolen the child and returned home in glory.
It wasn't about abducting children, Kull reminded himself, or about the merry havoc the little changeling would wreak in its place. It was about the good of the horde. It was about tradition. Goblinkind needed magic. Just a little. Just enough. They needed to tap into the ancient rituals. They needed the Old Ways. They needed that baby.
Kull clambered up into the bassinet with his bundle and set the squirming changeling down gently in the soft bedding. It was the rarest of their kind in a generation, and Kull would see it fulfill its purpose before Nudd could geld its beautiful mischief. In his hands it had looked at least mostly goblin, albeit a goblin with skin like smoke and shadows, but now it rippled and wavered like a living mirage. Its skin was speckled with stars and peeling like old wallpaper, and then it was the color of the cherrywood crib and as woolly as the child's blanket.
Kull had been nervous that the transformation would not work without the proper words, but now he grinned with all his jagged teeth to see the thing's magical instincts taking over.
Somewhere inside the house, a floorboard creaked. Kull froze, all of his senses instantly trained on the door to the hallway. He should have latched it. It hung ajar, and now soft footfalls were approaching. A flicker of shadow. Kull's breath caught in his throat and his eyes went wide.
The door shuddered inward and a fat black cat sauntered in. It glanced up at Kull, who stood motionless inside the bassinet, and then it sat down on the carpet to watch, flicking its tail and looking unimpressed.
Kull breathed. It was fine. The full-grown humans were still asleep. He turned back around to bear witness to the glorious miracle of his proud and ancient culture. Two button-nosed babies with pudgy pink cheeks blinked back at him.
It was done! The changeling had performed beyond Kull's wildest imagination; the impersonation was exact! Kull had only to pluck the helpless infant from the safety of its bed and secrete it away into the Deep Dark, leaving the doppelgänger in its place. First one child smacked its tiny lips and then the other. The other rubbed its cheek and then the first.
Kull hesitated. He peered at the squishy little face closest to him. He peered at the other face. Which was it? He nudged the first child with a bony knuckle. As one, the babies began to cry. Kull cringed.
Up the hall, a door clicked open, and a woman's tired voice echoed down the corridor. "He's probably just hungry. You sleep. I'll put him back to bed."
Kull panicked. He took the closest child into his shaking hands, and then dropped it and wrapped his fingers around the farthest instead. The babies wailed and kicked their chubby legs. Kull's chest was pounding. Which one was it?
He hopped from one foot to the other. The sound of footsteps drew nearer. Which one? Which one? He glanced from the door to the children to the door to the children to . . .
The door opened with a mewl like a kitten. "Hush, sweetie. Mama's here," Mrs. Burton cooed blearily. The curtain flapped in the cool night breeze as she crossed to the crib. Mrs. Burton froze. Mrs. Burton stared.
Kull had already burst through the underbrush and into the Wild Wood when the lamps flickered on in the house behind him. His feet were racing, his heart was thudding, his head was full, and his hands were empty.
Annie Burton distinctly remembered giving birth to one baby. One. She had been there. She had counted. Ten fingers, ten toes, one baby. But now . . . twins.
There had been a great deal of talk that first morning, and it was scarcely midday before the house had filled with noisy onlookers. Father Lewis had brought rosaries. Old Jim had tossed salt all over the house. Nosy Mrs. Grouse from across the road had been the first to say the word aloud.
"Goblins. It's goblins, I swear. They've stolen a baby before, you know. From right here in Endsborough. They used to talk about it all the time. My grandmother knew the family."
"Helen, please—" Annie began, but Mrs. Grouse ignored her.
"Once upon a time, there was a child whom the goblins stole away. That's how the story goes. She was a beautiful child with joyful dimples and thick curls of rich brown hair, and the goblins came and they just took her away."
"When I was growing up, it was fairies," said Old Jim Warner.
"No. It was the goblins," Mrs. Grouse continued forcefully, "and they left one of their own in place of the child, a changeling. It was an awful thing—a monster in disguise. For three days the child's parents fed the vile little creature, fretted over it, thinking it was their own flesh and blood. Then, one morning, the goblin could hide no longer. It struck. Tore up the nursery, shrieked like the devil, and when the frightened parents came running, it killed the husband dead while his poor wife watched. Drove her mad to see it. She chased the evil thing into the forest, so they say, and she never came back out again."
"You've got your stories all mixed up," Old Jim grumbled. "That's the legend of the Witch of the Wild Wood. And she never had a husband in the first place. She was a single mother and the fairies came and stole away her only daughter, but nobody in town believed her. Then, when she went into the forest to try to get her baby back, the fairies cursed her to wander the Deep Dark forever, snatching up wayward children in place of her own."
"It was goblins," Mrs. Grouse asserted.
"Fairies," huffed Old Jim.
"You're both talking about fairy tales," said Annie Burton. "This is madness! They're not monsters. They're just children."
"One of them is," said Mrs. Grouse.
"If there really is a witch in the woods," Joseph Burton said, his face stoic, "and she lost her baby to . . . to magical creatures, then maybe she's still out there. Maybe she would know how to recognize a changeling."
"There is no witch in the woods," said Father Lewis. It was the first time the old man had spoken since his arrival, and his voice was low and soft. "There never was a witch. There was just a woman."
The room was silent as all eyes turned to the aging pastor.
"The stories are wrong," he continued. "There was a woman who used to live alone in the woods, that much is true. I don't know anything about fairies or goblins or any of that—I think it was just regular old grief that sent her out there. I met her, just once, when I was still a young man. I went walking along a path in the forest and got turned around. The woman was real, and she was sad. She had indeed suffered a great loss. The poor old thing just wanted to be left alone."
"But if there's truth to any of it . . ." Joseph Burton allowed the words to trail off. His eyes were on the back window and the swaying trees.
"The woman was already quite old back then," said the pastor gently. "I'm sure she's long passed by now, God rest her. That hasn't stopped the stories about that poor lady from growing into absolute nonsense."
"It's not nonsense," mumbled Old Jim.
For once, Mrs. Grouse seemed to agree with him. "Indeed it's not. Proof enough is in that bassinet," she insisted. "It isn't natural. Isn't right. It's goblins, I swear. It's a changeling."
Nobody wanted to agree with the superstitious woman, but nobody could truly say she was wrong, either. You couldn't live your life beside the Wild Wood and not believe at least a few of the old stories.
They burned sage and poked both children with silver, but the babies only sneezed and giggled and batted at the spoons. Nobody in town was quite certain what to look for in a changeling. Eventually, somebody got the idea to send away for advice from an expert they had heard about out in New Fiddleham. Iron—the expert advised them by post—touch the child with iron within the first three days. By the time this counsel arrived, seven days had passed. They tried anyway, but both babies just grappled at the fireplace poker and got soot all over their swaddling clothes.
And so, after a week of dithering and debating, it was decided (for lack of a better option) that they would simply have to wait. The goblin child would reveal its own true nature eventually. A goblin, after all, couldn't resist getting up to all manner of mischief. They would just have to be wary and watchful. Until then, the Burtons would care for both boys as their own.
Bit by bit, the neighbors ceased stopping by to gawk and speculate until, one evening, only Mrs. Grouse remained. "A goblin, Annie," she reminded her, unnecessarily, before she left for the night. "A horrible goblin changeling, sleeping side by side with your own flesh and blood."
"Good night, Helen."
The boys were indeed sleeping side by side as Annie closed the door behind her. Annie could not help but notice that her own baby—whichever one it was—had slept more soundly since the arrival of his mysterious twin. They seemed equally calmed by each other's presence and distressed by their separation. They would cry ceaselessly when she attempted to move them into different rooms, but quieted at once when they were back in each other's company, until soon they would be snoring peacefully. She watched them for a long time, listening to the soft rhythm of their breathing.
Until the changeling's natural mischief gave the wicked thing away, she would let the matter rest, along with the boys. Her boys.
No reason to rush the matter, Annie thought, taking a deep breath. After all, they would know the truth soon enough.
It had been twelve years, eleven months, and twenty-eight days since Annie Burton's baby had mysteriously become two babies. By now she had learned what more experienced parents could have told her as a young mother: mischief is in the nature of goblins and growing children in roughly equal measure, which left the matter uncertain far longer than she had anticipated.
Annie Burton was not the sort of woman to be thwarted by a little twist of fate. Fate, it seemed, had taken this as a challenge. It had been twelve years, eleven months, and twenty-one days since Annie Burton had become a widow.
Some of the gossips in town considered her less a widow and more an abandoned wife—Joseph Burton had clearly left work alive that night and simply never arrived back home—but Annie refused to believe her husband would leave her alone with two crying, kicking, grappling, growing baby boys for anything less than his own demise. Annie knew she was a widow. The way that she said it, with her jaw set and her eyes tense and narrow, made the townspeople hope, for her husband's sake, that she was right.
Annie wiped the sweat from her brow and pulled with both hands. The long, stubborn blackberry vine in her grip finally ripped free, its roots giving up their hold. Annie took a deep, satisfied breath and tugged, unwinding the pernicious thing from the slats in her back fence. When she and Joseph had moved into the little cottage, the plant had been growing right up to their back door. Inch by inch, year by year, she had cut the vines back. As the boys had grown older, they had begun to help her, chopping at the brambles like knights battling a thorny dragon, and together they kept the vines at bay. Annie now stood in the wide garden that they had grown where the persistent plant had once held dominion. The plot of land had been hard won, and she was not about to let the prickly brute reclaim it.
She tossed the vanquished vine on the heap with the others. Its thin, wispy end whipped toward her as she threw it, catching her a scratch across the neck with its tiny barbs. She gritted her teeth and glowered at the fallen plant. "Was that really necessary?" she said.
As if in reply, voices carried across the grass from the front of the house. Annie recognized their cadence long before they were close enough for her to make out their words. Dusting her hands off on her apron, she gave the garden one last look before her boys came tumbling through it, then braced herself for the inevitable fistfuls of tadpoles, chronicles of skinned knees (they always came in twos with her boys), or, worse: the flood of excuses about whichever neighbor was likely to come around soon with wild accusations about something that was definitely, absolutely, positively not the twins' fault.
"—gotta go back, then," one of the boys was saying as they neared.
"That is a idea," the other replied.
"What's a terrible idea?" Annie asked as her boys came around the corner.
"Hi, Mom!" Cole said, a little more loudly than was strictly necessary.
"The garden looks really good, Mom," Tinn added. "You want some help?"
"I want to know what's a terrible idea."
The twins glanced at each other.
"Yams," said Cole.
"Catapult," said Tinn at the same time.
"Yam catapult," said Cole. "Terrible idea."
Tinn nodded. "Waste of good vegetables."
Annie sighed. "And that is exactly the reason I kicked the two of you out of the garden this morning. What have you been up to?"
"Just playing in our climbing tree out by the creek," said Cole.
Annie glanced at Tinn, one eyebrow raised.
"Yep. Out by the creek. We were about to go back. I . . ." Tinn's eyes flickered to Cole and back. "I forgot my hat."
"You swear to me you haven't been anywhere near the mill this time?" Annie pressed. "Or down into the quarry?"
"No, ma'am," the boys said together.
Annie looked suspiciously from Tinn to Cole. "You promise to behave yourselves?"
As one, the boys grinned and nodded.
Annie Burton sighed the heavy sigh of a mother who knows her children far too well and somehow loves them anyway. "I expect you back before sundown," she said, though she said the final word to the boys' backs as they scampered away.
"Love you, Mom!" they called over their shoulders in unison.
"Don't you dare go into Old Jim's orchard, either!" Annie yelled after them. "I don't want to hear one word about you two trespassing again! You know how that man gets."
"We would never!" Cole called back earnestly, dashing around the corner of the house.
"We know the rules!" yelled Tinn, one step behind his brother.
Ten minutes later, the boys rounded the bend to Old Jim's orchard. The path was lined with old, twisty, knobby trees.
"This really is a terrible idea," whispered Tinn.
"Yup. Shoulda thought of that before you went and left your hat in a stupid apple tree," Cole replied.
"It's not like I did it on purpose!" Tinn groused. "Old Jim almost caught me. I barely got down in time. Skinned my shin real bad on the way."
"Tree got yours? Mine got all tore up on the fence."
They paused to pull up their pant legs and compare wounds. For as long as they could remember, the twins had not only looked the same, they had always managed to sustain identical injuries. When one cut his finger on a nail, the other would invariably have a run-in with the cat's claws or a broken glass.
Tinn grumbled as he pulled his cuff back down. "This is your fault."
"Yeah, well. It's your hat," said Cole. "If we don't sneak back in and get it, then Old Jim's gonna find it, and you just know he'll tell Mom. If you don't wanna get in trouble for sneaking in again, then we gotta sneak back in again."
"You're such a dummy."
"Yeah, well—I'm the dummy with a hat."
"You could at least pretend you're not enjoying this."
Cole just grinned and walked a little faster.
They rounded the last turn and jolted to a stop. Ahead of them, not a hundred feet away, Old Jim himself was bent over a fallen piece of his weathered fence. The twins ducked behind the nearest tree to hide.
"I've got an idea," whispered Cole.
"No," said Tinn.
"Aw, come on. He hasn't seen us yet," said Cole.
"No," said Tinn.
"Let's do it just like last Thanksgiving," said Cole, his eyes bright. He peered around the tree trunk.
"We got grounded for a week for last Thanksgiving," hissed Tinn. "And I still have cranberry stains on my shoes."
"Fine. Not exactly like last Thanksgiving. He's not looking—here we go!" Cole darted across the path, taking cover behind another tree, twenty feet closer to Jim's orchard.
Tinn swallowed nervously. He peered around the tree trunk and down the path. Old Jim was still facing away, rummaging about in a battered wooden toolbox. Tinn felt the familiar twisting in his stomach. He glanced over at Cole. He could almost feel the energy rippling off his brother. Cole kept his head low—if he had been a cat, his tail would have been twitching. He gave Tinn an enthusiastic thumbs-up, and Tinn tried very hard not to smile. Smiling only encouraged his brother. Cole was doing this, and if Cole was doing it, then Tinn was doing it.
As quietly as he could, Tinn stepped out from behind the tree.
Old Jim turned around.
"Who's that?" the farmer called, straightening.
"Just me," said Tinn, trying to walk as nonchalantly as he could. He stumbled, and then laughed nervously. His palms already felt sweaty. What did he normally do with his hands when he was walking? He was pretty sure he wasn't doing it now.
"Me who?" the old man barked.
Out of the corner of his eye, Tinn saw Cole grinning up at him before he disappeared behind a bush. "It's Tinn, sir. Burton. Annie Burton's boy. Just out walking. Um. How are you, today, sir?"
“Ritter crafts a well-paced adventure filled with whimsy and peril, in which the bonds of family and love prove stronger than any spell or curse. With memorable characters—especially the irrepressible protagonists, who make a delightful team—and an atmospheric setting, this is a strong series opener.”
“Set in a magical world filled with incredible creatures from folklore, this fast-paced fantasy will keep readers turning the pages as they follow the twins through the dark and mysterious woods. Unique characters with complex personalities will give readers insight into the feelings and actions of not only Tinn and Cole and their mother, but the creatures—both good and evil—they encounter on their journey. A captivating series opener.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Fans of Michael Buckley’s ‘Sisters Grimm’ novels will delight in this fast-paced, page-turning fantasy . . . A must-buy for any collection and a title that will lead readers to other classic titles used as source material.”
—School Library Journal
“A delightful series opener.”
“Ritter invests the novel’s questions about biological identity and birthright with equally powerful affirmations of bonds forged by familial love . . . The snappy, humorous dialogue and shifting perspectives keep the pace lively, and readers can look forward to learning more about Fable in the next installment.”
—The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“This is the delightful beginning to a new series about goblins who seek to restore magic to the Wild Wood.”
“Ritter’s brand of magic here is a gift for all readers of the fantastical—young and old alike.”
—The Mountain Times
“A great adventure that keeps you guessing!”
- On Sale
- Apr 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Algonquin Young Readers